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When and How Should Your Company Take a Stand?

By Bob Needham
Tags: leadership

One of the challenges companies have faced this year has been the rise in protests against systemic racism and social injustice. Should companies respond publicly to these issues? If so, how and when?

Michigan Ross faculty member and alumnus Marcus Collins background spans advertising, social media, and the intersection of brands and culture. Collins, MBA ’09/BS ’02/BSEMS ’02, offers 10 principles that can help guide companies on these issues:

  1. Be human. The stewards of the company need to muster all the humanity that resides within them and act on their convictions. When horrible things are happening, what we want to hear is that you see it and you’re standing with us. That you care.
  2. If you have something to say, say it. This is not the time for boilerplate “we stand with you” messaging, especially when the company or brand has been silent on the issue in the past. Any response from a company should address the issues and the people who are affected by the issues. 
  3. Speak out when it’s inconvenient. When gay marriage was front and center in 2012, few brands were supportive. But over time, it became in vogue. If you only speak out at that point, you're not making a statement, you're just following a trend. If you speak up when it's inconvenient, that shows conviction.
  4. Take a real stand. Your business should stand for something. You might risk alienating some people by speaking out. But even if you try to ride the middle and do nothing, there are consequences to that. People will say your silence speaks volumes. There's no way to be untouched. 
  5. Be authentic. Your word choices will be scrutinized, so there has to be some judiciousness and intentionality. But most importantly, the message has to come from the heart. It has to be human. When a company that says it stands for justice or something similar, it's meaningless. How do you really feel? 
  6. Know when not to speak out. If your company can’t say something meaningful, don't say anything at all. The core guideline should be: Is it real? If it's not real, don't say anything. If it's not real, you're better off just making a donation. 
  7. Act. Whether or not you say something, do something. Think about how you can help. Imagine a healthcare company sharing information on how to treat tear gas in your eyes, which protesters may need. Just help.
  8. Engage diverse perspectives. You need to have people in the room to say, “Hey, you know what? If we do this, I don't think it’s going to resonate well because of X, Y, and Z.” In complex situations, you have to understand the nuances. That requires work, and it requires people who know the different communities.
  9. Examine your own company. Companies need to ask: What do we as an organization do to perpetuate inequality? This might include hiring practices, microaggressions that exist in the organization, the way that they onboard people, or the language used when talking about a particular topic.
  10. Work to improve. Ask yourself and others: What can we change to make this better? This isn't about whether you're racist. Society expects you not to be racist as a bare minimum. This is about actively being anti-racist. As an organization, what have you done, what are you doing, what are you going to do to become anti-racist? 

Featured Faculty

Marcus Collins
  • LEO Lecturer